saving children, or saving ourselves?
It’s not easy being an international adoption supporter these days: with a building media catalog of botched cases, questionable practices world-wide, and celebrity entitlement excesses, adoption has fallen under increasing scrutiny and attack, the most vociferous criticism coming from adult adoptees themselves. I can’t attribute the quote, but someone noteworthy said recently that adoption was “under siege.”
That’s how this debate is being characterized of late: as a war. The well-funded and embattled adoption industry is digging in its heels and employing everything in their arsenal to stop this changing tide of public opinion, and at the front lines of their arsenal are dogmatic adult adoptees who refuse to look thoughtfully and thoroughly at the criticisms of what brought them to where they are. Many of their arguments are eroding as the general public is more willing to question adoption practices in the wake of the often substantive, well-reasoned arguments made by adult adoptees against international adoption, the fifth estate, and increasingly mainstream media.
The adoption industry clings to their dogma — that they are “saving” children — tighter than ever, as if their lives depended on it. This attitude is especially interesting in Korea, in the absence of war, in how they explain and justify their continued presence here. That doesn’t make sense at all to me, and so I’d like to address the two kinds of “saving” they think gives them license to operate below:
I. Not ripped, but thrown away.
In the continuing insistence that adoption is saving children from a rigid Confucian society or saving unwed mothers from the ostracizing of a severe Confucian society, some adoption industry supporters have told me (in response to my post, unfortunately I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried) that Korea “doesn’t give a shit” and will always throw away its kids, so adoption is necessary. The presence of adoption agencies has no causal effects.
A little history lesson:
Korea used to give a shit.
Scholars have told me that prior to the existence of orphanages — which didn’t exist prior to the Korean War — accidental children and unwanted children were kept within the extended family and true orphans were taken in by monasteries as monks in training. So, they didn’t throw away their children and prior to adoption most children were taken care of internally by society.
Orphanages were a necessity in the aftermath of the war because the country was devastated and family networks were broken up and thousands of children were legitimately saved. But the idea of sending children to other countries was an intervention which would thenceforth alleviate Korea of its social responsibilities towards its most helpless citizens and also later become a convenient avenue for erasing family shame WHICH DIDN’T EXIST BEFORE. In fact, INTERNATIONAL ADOPTION DIDN’T EXIST prior to its INTRODUCTION in Korea, and U.S. social workers at the time were very very concerned about the effects of uprooting children from their native culture to live as minorities in a country still uncomfortable with race issues.
Towards the end of the first wave of adoptions, Koreans were abandoning their children en masse. The reason for this is because of the presence of adoption agencies who offered not only one less mouth to feed, but the promise of a better life elsewhere for their children.. The adoption agencies’ method of helping Korea was not to provide aid to families, but to take children to families abroad who had more means and proper Christian ideals. The concept of international, and of other non-Asian countries, was unfathomable by most, and few had any idea their children were never-to-be-seen-again. Orphanages were thought of as temporary assistance and it came as a shock to most to discover what the permanence of relinquishment really meant.
These adoption supporters have told me, “the truth is you were thrown away.” I’m not going to argue against the reality that I was abandoned, but I will argue against the idea that my abandonment was so callous. Yes, I was thrown away. But was it by my parents? I think I was thrown away by my country, through the design of others’ deceit. I was severed from this country by foreign forces intervening in the delicate structure of a country at its most vulnerable. In the minds of Korean parents at that time, their children were not being thrown away, but handed up. Up to what? No parents (my parents) would leave a child alone on the street, in the middle of the harsh Korean winter, if they hadn’t known HOLT was there collecting children to send to magic lands where the streets were lined with gold. These myths distributed by the adoption agencies exploited the hopes and dreams poor struggling people had for their family members, and are the real reason families abandoned their children. It was/IS STILL the presence of the adoption agencies which is the CATALYST for abandonment. Their presence encouraged families to split apart and the splinters were thrown out of reach. I call that being ripped from Korea; not thrown away.
The later waves of Korean adoptees (the vast majority of them) became orphaned not because of war or post-war economics, but because there was now an established way to erase the evidence of indiscretions and their resulting family shame.
For over 50 years this adoption option has become so well established that instead of a loving (and misguided due to misrepresentation) act of desperation, it has morphed into the defacto choice for preserving family honor, when prior to adoption families just had to suck it up and live with their transgressions. But it didn’t just morph into that on its own. It was suggested by the adoption agencies to fill the orphanages that weren’t needed any longer. Capitalizing on Confucian family honor was an excuse to continue practicing adoption. The presence of the adoption agencies is now used as a means of social engineering through surgery. And, personally, I have a hard time discerning what’s moral, ethical, or charitable in that process. It’s time Korea understands that the wart on their face is not the child or its mother, but the length to which they will go to preserve their image and social standing. But Korea will never have to take responsibility for their transgressions, as they did in the past, as long as the convenience of adoption is an option, and adoption agencies can never have clean hands as long as they persist in “helping” Korea by providing Korea with a trash can. Remove the means for abandonment, and what happens? People have to begin taking responsibility for their actions. Just like they did before adoption was here. Just like the brave unwed moms do against all odds.
I.I. HOLT should be canonized because they care for the handicapped and special needs children.
Taking care of handicapped and special needs children IS a great thing to do. But again, why are those children in an orphanage and not at home with their parents? WHY ARE THOSE CHILDREN IN AN ORPHANAGE AT ALL?
Last June I watched on the news how a jet filled with 30 Korean doctors went to Vietnam to perform cosmetic surgery on children with cleft lips so they could lead happy, productive lives. SK telecom of S. Korea has spent over $2 million U.S. on over 3,000 such operations. The irony of this brought tears to my eyes, and then outrage: Because teams of cosmetic surgeons can command great PR for Korea by saving children from disfigurement in poor countries, but they don’t do it here in their own country. Because Korea has the money to help its own children. Because having a cleft lip is enough reason to become orphaned here in Korea. Because orphanages allow Korea a nice tidy way to not deal with their own problems. Because these children are not problems, but people.
Whether Korean children born out of wedlock have ten fingers and toes, or whether Korean children have a cleft lip, or a severe medical condition, or whether Korean children are born underweight, why are any of them (all of the above without differentiation) in an orphanage?
1) they were rejected because it ruined the family’s image or
2) there weren’t enough means to take care of the children.
In both cases, they are in orphanages:
A) because the orphanages exist, relieving the family from being responsible and
B) because social services do not provide for society
And B) never has to improve as long as there is A) because A) relieves B) of its responsibilities.
Yes, it is saintly to take care of handicapped and special needs children, but not in orphanages: they should be cared for in their own homes and communities by their own country. And Korea has plenty of money to do so. But by setting up orphanages we tell Korea it’s okay to throw away the children you don’t want, to abandon the citizens who can’t defend themselves. And to congratulate oneself or use such “charity” as justification for a continuing presence and complication of domestic affairs of a country is pretty repugnant. Is this how we want to contribute to Korean society? By enabling those that won’t be or can’t be responsible? And the reason there’s little to admire about orphanages for handicapped and special needs children is because there shouldn’t be orphan ghettos created for undesirables in the first place. Providing a mechanism to abandon children — for any reason — is tantamount to condoning abandonment. And it’s not only limited to implicitly condoning abandoning children: it’s actively promoted as the preferred and default solution. Adoption agencies perpetuate the problems here.
And for the adult adoptees myopic enough to support the adoption industry, I’d like to add the following criticisms:
It’s just IDIOTIC for the small percentage of Korean adoptees who were saved from the results of war to hold up war practices and results as the model for peace time. And anyone who uses war practices in times of peace, for that matter. Eliminating adoption, it would seem, negates their reason for being: for going through all the struggles they’ve gone through. But that’s a false dichotomy. Eliminating adoption would instead remove outside forces and allow this country to find its own balance and finally heal itself. HOLT, the other international adoption agencies, and adoptees like KWB, Steve Kalb, Susan Cox and Kim Brown, should find new reasons to purpose themselves — deeper, more effective ways to truly help society sustainably — instead of looking to erect monuments to glories past where they can be part of something heroic and validate themselves. Because they’ve invested so much of themselves, what would their lives mean if it turned out they were misguided? Can’t. Let. That. Happen. At. All. Costs. I’ve no doubt about their commitment: but they want to be a part of something that does good so bad, they don’t realize they are being used to promote and protect something that contributes to the harm of an entire society. Plus, change takes work. Deep work. A lot more work than business as usual. And who wants to work themselves out of a job? Certainly not the adoption industry.
It’s also IDIOTIC to say on one hand that you support unwed mothers, while at the same time supporting the forces that exploit and oppress them.
Caring about unwed mothers is an issue that was co-opted by the adoption industry at first criticism but it’s a red herring, for in practice adoption industry support of unwed mothers is paltry: the bulk of their support of mothers is convincing them their lives will be better without their babies. And yet, the plight of the unwed moms here who choose to keep their children in Korea is too palpable to ignore, even by adoption-industry supporting adoptees. But to give it sympathy and then ultimately dismiss their struggles as being entirely the fault of Korea is turning a blind eye to the fact that they are pressured into giving away their children TO adoption is to dismiss their reality. So either really support those struggling moms, or quit using them and giving their struggles lip-service to appear open-minded.
Your solution just isn’t good enough.
Molly Holt has admitted that “mistakes were made.” What if it was beyond “mistakes?” What if staying on in a country fifty years after there’s no war is just WRONG? What if “saving” children from a rigid Confucian society makes the society even more terrifyingly rigid with even more terrifying consequences? What if this intervention has totally redefined, and not in a good way, the definition of family in this country? What if these what-if’s are not speculation but a reflection of the results of international adoption?
It’s been over 50 years since adoption became established in Korea and there has been been very little progress in social services but almost 200,000 children sent away. And this is a process that should continue? These sad figures would indicate to me that even though adoption is some kind of a solution, there is something pathologically wrong with it and it isn’t fixing anything. 200,000 families fractured. How can we begin to measure the amount of damage this solution has done to this nation?
Adoption agencies are like the martyr mom who promotes her saintliness to others by complaining how she always has to clean Johnny’s room because he won’t do it himself. Johnny’s not stupid, however. He knows he’ll never have to clean his room as long as she’s there to clean up after him. Who’s really at fault, Johnny or his mom? Didn’t the mom create the lazy irresponsible boy? Only in the matter of Korea, there are human lives at stake: the unwed moms who have empty arms and broken hearts and the children who are sent to other countries who must spend their lives explaining who they are and why.
In the matter of war, there is always a time of reconstruction where assistance is given until a country gains strength to manage their own affairs. Only in South Korea, the reconstruction period never ended. Because there remains this vestige of dependency that is adoption. The exit plan never materialized, the (I would argue pathological) adoption solution was introduced, and it’s continued presence has retarded the personal growth, healing, and independence of the Korean people.
To my mind, the entire notion that Korea doesn’t give a shit and is incorrigible so adoption agencies must operate here in perpetuity is just the most negative, sad, hopeless, dis-empowered, lacking-in-faith, dismal assessment of Korean people I’ve ever witnessed. Such statements actually resemble the patronizing dismissive sentiments of a colonist’s condemnation of those they exploit, and shouldn’t be tolerated. I mean, there’s something wrong when the people profiting by the refuse collection are the same people that provide the trash can and are the same people condemning Koreans for using the trash can they told them they needed. That Korean society is something to be saved from or that Korean society can not change (they were changed into a baby exporting nation, so obviously the capacity for change is there) is highly debatable and not a foregone conclusion. And canonizing Holt and the other adoption agencies for their work – have they really been a friend to Korea? Or are they opportunists and exploiters of Korea? Korean people love their children too, and in the absence of the adoption solution they will rise to the occasion and take care of their own, the way they did before outside intervention.
Adoption is NOT the best solution: giving a country true autonomy by discontinuing interventions which warp society is. Helping Korea return to family values and community values of uri nara is. Developing social services is. Preserving families is. Finding balance is. But you have to work at it. And you have to RESPECT people, have FAITH in humanity, and treat them with DIGNITY.
The adoption agencies and their supporters exhortations that they are continuing to “save” children and their mothers from society ring hollow. The only ones they are saving is themselves: from existential crisis, from their real identity work, from self reproach, from job loss, or from eternal damnation. The sad thing is: don’t they realize working themselves out of a job should be the goal? That the goal should be creating strong societies that value all of its people and don’t need to abandon their children?
What a waste of their lives. What a waste of resources, human and economic. What a stupid battle, this adoption war.